After narrowly losing out on a sectional victory at a national scholastic chess championship last year, Burnsville's Metcalf Middle School may get to celebrate after all.

The U.S. Chess Federation's ethics committee has ruled that the winning Texas team, its coach and 13 of his players violated its ethics code, and the panel recommended that the players' prizes be revoked.

Henderson Middle School of El Paso was found by the panel to have engaged in a widespread form of cheating called "sandbagging" that was organized and directed by the coach. Along with the Burnsville players being edged out for team victory in the section, one of the team's players may also have been robbed of an individual top prize because her only loss was to a player from the team that is now facing sanctions.

The ethics panel "finds this behavior by Coach [Saul] Ramirez to be absolutely unforgivable," it said.

The panel found that a few months before the K-9 National Championship, held last April in Atlanta, Henderson players competed in several tournaments and deliberately lost virtually all their games. By throwing those games, the argument went, the players' chess ratings dropped, making them eligible for lower-rated, easier sections at the national tournament. And at nationals, the team finished first in the two lowest-rated sections, "K-8 Under 1000" and "K-8 Under 750," and a Henderson player won the individual competition in both sections.

Ramirez, a teacher, denied orchestrating any cheating. He also asserted that it was not inconceivable that students "who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds" would have inconsistent results, the committee said, summarizing his defense. The players themselves "all insist that they play honestly."

But the ethics committee rejected those arguments, saying it defied belief that every one of the team's players could have off days together. It noted that in three events where the games were allegedly thrown, the Henderson players had a combined score of one win, 49 losses and one draw. And in two of those events, the Henderson players generally were rated higher than opponents to whom they lost. In one of the events, Henderson players lost all 28 games. A statistician for a New York City school that joined in the complaint against Henderson concluded that, given the rating superiority of the Henderson players, there was an infinitesimal chance of all of them getting blanked in fair competition.

"It was so obvious, and they didn't even do anything cute to try to conceal it," said Brian Ribnick, coach of the Burnsville team.

Ribnick said he was "so bummed for my kids who had worked so hard," but also felt bad for the Henderson students who, the federation concluded, were instructed to throw their games. "What lessons are you learning, that this is how you get ahead in life?"

The ethics committee sounded a similar note, saying Ramirez apparently was "trying to enhance the self-esteem of his players by gaining them undeserved prizes at the national scholastics, [but] he was simultaneously crushing the dreams of the players from other schools."

Metcalf player Audra Johnson, now in eighth grade, was one of those directly affected. She won six of her seven games, and her only loss was to the Henderson player who won the "K-8 Under 750" rating division and is facing a reprimand by the ethics committee. Had she won that sixth-round game, she would have been playing for first place in the "Under 750" section in the seventh and final round.

"I was astonished that an entire team would cheat in this way," Johnson wrote in a statement submitted to the ethics panel. "I still don't understand why someone would feel the need to sandbag. Hard work and discipline is what it takes to win, not defrauding others."

The ethics panel found that Ramirez violated several provisions of the ethics code, including behavior "inconsistent with the principles of fair play, good sportsmanship, honesty," and "deliberately losing a game for payment, or to lower one's rating ... or attempting to induce another player to do so."

It recommended that all prizes won by Henderson players at nationals be revoked and that the coach's U.S. Chess membership be permanently revoked, among other penalties. Ramirez can appeal within 30 days of the ruling, which was issued Feb. 22. If he does appeal, the federation's executive board would review the case.

The El Paso school district said it "continue[s] to support Mr. Ramirez, his students and the chess program."

If the ethics panel's recommendation on revoking prizes is ultimately upheld, it would be up to the federation's director of events to determine how to adjust scores and reallocate prizes.

Meanwhile, Ribnick finds comfort in the ethics panel's series of 10-0 votes that Ramirez violated various provisions of the ethics code, and he expects that Metcalf will be elevated from second place to first in the "Under 750" division. "I can't say that definitively, but I feel 99 percent sure," the coach said.

"We're ready to celebrate," he said. "I've already got some party ideas in mind."

Dennis J. McGrath • 612-673-4293